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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, October 18, 2010

AGAIN SUPERHEROIC IDIOMS PART 3

'WHEN I told John that I intended to write his biography, he laughed. "My dear man!" he said, "But of course it was inevitable." The word "man" on John's lips was often equivalent to "fool."

"Well," I protested, "a cat may look at a king."

He replied, "Yes, but can it really see the king? Can you, puss, really see me?"

This from a queer child to a full-grown man.'

-- opening lines to Olaf Stapeldon's ODD JOHN (1935)


Stapeldon's opening lines to ODD JOHN (considered by some the best SF novel on the theme of "the superman") are useful here because the lines emphasize the act of "looking" at some fantastic presence before whom the unremarkable narrator is, as the phrase goes, no more than a cat looking at a king.

As detailed in my essay FOCAL GROUPINGS: RESOURCE, Dwight Swain formulated his concept of the "focal character" in response to his observation that on occasion the character on whom the reader was meant to be most oriented might be a character seen through the eyes of another. Of the assorted examples Swain gives, I find two, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Stoker's Dracula, to be most useful in explicating how the focal figure-- which I will actually call "the focal presence"-- can be either the protagonist or antagonist along the model of the Quiller-Couch schema.

As it happens, both the novel DRACULA and the serial-concept "Sherlock Holmes," even considered only in terms of their original creators' works, fall under Quiller-Couch's "Man vs. Man" opposition. However, each takes a very different narrative path to depict its "focal presence."

In the case of the Sherlock Holmes stories, viewpoint character Watson is (usually) in a position of commenting on Holmes' brilliance as Holmes sets himself to solve mysteries occasioned by other human beings. Not all of these mysteries involve crime as such, as with "The Man with the Twisted Lip." But all the stories concern some manner of human-engineered deception which Holmes must uncover. In this endeavor viewpoint character Watson functions both as a sounding-board and, on occasion, an ally against physical peril, so in any given story the two of them together take the protagonist's position in the "Man vs. Man" formula.

In contrast, the "focal presence" of Stoker's novel, the Count himself, is essentially in the position of the antagonist in the Quiller-Couch schema-- the second "Man," as it were. Dracula is seen through the eyes of many viewpoint characters, but although the reader is meant to sympathize with all of them-- Mina, Jonathan, Van Helsing-- far more than with Dracula, nevertheless Dracula is the focal presence because it is his mythology, not that of the viewpoint characters, that the reader explores. Indeed, despite occasional efforts by later hands to create stories focused around these subsidiary characters-- Van Helsing in the 2004 movie, Mina Murray in LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN-- all the characters are still best known for being *aspects* of Dracula's mythology.

This inversion is more than just a matter of making the villain the star of the show. When the author "de-centers" the narrative by making an anomalous presence more the "star" than the actual viewpoint characters, the author has moved away from the classical model of Aristotle and his moral lessons, and more toward the territory of Rudolf Otto. Otto wrote in his IDEA OF THE HOLY that when one encountered what one perceived as "the numinous," one's attitude would be:

"blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute."

This de-centered posture is definitely typical of both ODD JOHN and DRACULA, for all that the narrator in the first is simply the admiring chronicler of John's life while the narrators in the second are attempting to destroy the daemonically dreadful figure of the Count.

In Part 4 I will examine the other three oppositions I've adapted from Quiller-Couch's schema in terms as to whether their focal presences are centered upon a "man" protagonist or upon one of that man's prospective opponents: Nature, Society, or Himself.

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